AHL Eastern Conference notebook, February, 2014

By Tony Androckitis

Mike Hoffman - Ottawa Senators

Photo: Binghamton Senators forward and Ottawa Senators prospect Mike Hoffman has turned in a strong season in the AHL after having his 2012-13 campaign shortened by an injury (courtesy of Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

With the NHL on a two-week Olympic hiatus, several top prospects were sent down to their respective AHL teams, with several teams in the Eastern Conference receiving reinforcements.

For some clubs, the quick spike in depth provided almost instant results. For others, the "better on paper" lineup caused a downgrade in the team's on-ice performance.

One thing is certain – with roughly 25 games left for teams in the AHL, this conference playoff race will start to take shape. With each division leader looking to break away from the pack, there will be a logjam of teams fighting for the 4th-to-8th seed.

AHL East All-Stars Play Pivotal Role In 2014 AHL All-Star Classic

The American Hockey League's best took to the ice on February 11th-12th at Mile One Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland for the AHL's annual Skills Competition and All-Star Game against Farjestad BK (FBK) from the Swedish Hockey League (SHL).

While FBK held a two goal advantage heading into the final event of the first night, the Skills Competition, hometown favorite and AHL All-Stars' captain Jason Jaffray stole the spotlight. Jaffray tied the competition on the last shot of the breakaway relay, and later won the event in the third round of the sudden death tie-breaker, giving the AHL All Stars the 18-17 victory.

Brian Gibbons participated in the fastest skater competition and his time of 14.350 seconds was the third-best time, and second best on the AHL team, to winner Mike Hoffman of the Binghamton Senators (13.990). An interesting note on Hoffman, whose bold strategy of diving forward at the finish line might have tricked the clock.

The All-Stars from the Eastern Conference also shined in the game itself the following night. Ryan Strome (Bridgeport Sound Tigers) scored two goals and Hoffman finished the game with three points and the Player of the Game award for the AHL team.

East Division Still Supreme

It should come as no surprise that the East Division currently has four teams among the top eight in the conference. Surprisingly, though, only last year's 2013 Calder Cup runner-up, the Syracuse Crunch, is not in a playoff spot as they currently sit 14th in the Eastern Conference.

The top four teams in the division (in order) – Binghamton, Hershey, Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – are separated by five points in what many consider the most competitive and deepest division in the AHL, having sent a team to the Calder Cup Finals as winners of the Eastern Conference in each of the last ten seasons.

The Binghamton Senators have been in first place for quite some time. Coming into last weekend, the Senators held a one point advantage over the then second-place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. After a convincing 6-2 win over the Penguins and an 8-0 blowout of the Worcester Sharks, the Senators are looking to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division heading down the stretch.

No team in the AHL is as hot as the Hershey Bears right now, who over the weekend switched from 4th place to 2nd in the division with back-to-back wins over the Penguins last weekend. The Bears have won five straight games and are 16-4-0-0 in their last 20 games.

The Norfolk Admirals have hung around in the division with consistent goaltending from rookie John Gibson and boast offensive talents such as Emerson Etem and Sami Vatanen.

The Penguins have been near the top of the division most of the season, but after losing four straight games (0-3-1-0) they find themselves just one point ahead of eighth place St. John's and ninth place Albany.

Usually getting players back from injury, call-up or trade provides a positive impact. So far for the Penguins, though, that has not necessarily been the case.

Brian Gibbons, who just ten days ago was playing on Sidney Crosby's wing, along with Jayson Megna and Harry Zolnierczyk were re-assigned by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Two more forwards, Andrew Ebbett and Adam Payerl, returned after lengthy injury absences. The Pens also made, essentially, an AHL trade, sending forward Paul Thompson to the Springfield Falcons in exchange for another right winger in Spencer Machacek.

It seems as though the Penguins started to right the ship in Sunday's 3-1 loss to Hershey, but with four of the next five games coming up against teams in the division or in the conference playoff race, an untimely losing streak could put the Pens in a hole heading down the stretch.

Fighting in the Northeast

Last Sunday’s game between the Adirondack Phantoms and Portland Pirates was the second and final meeting between the two teams. And, after what transpired in the waning moments of the that game's third period, it’s probably a good thing these two aren’t scheduled to play each other the rest of the regular season.

With the Pirates up 2-0 in the final minute of regulation, chaos broke out on the ice. A full five-on-five brawl ensued and Phantoms goaltender Cal Heeter, who was pulled for an extra attacker, twice left the bench to join the fracas and tussle with Pirates goalie Louis Domingue. A total of 58 infractions and 329 penalty minutes were assessed in the game. All but 62 of those penalty minutes were dished out in the final 30 seconds of play.

The AHL handed out six suspensions, banning Adirondack center Kris Newbury for four games, goaltender Cal Heeter for three games, left wing Zack FitzGerald for two games, center Ben Holmstrom for one game, left wing Tye McGinn for one game and Portland right wing Kyle Hagel for two games as a consequence of their actions.

Despite all the rough stuff, it was an important two points on the line for both teams, as both are currently on the outside looking in for the conference’s playoff race.

Hot List

1. Mike Hoffman – LW, Binghamton Senators

Hoffman has been doing just about everything lately, taking the Fastest Skater and Player of the Game honors during the AHL All-Star break as well as leading his team in a tough East Division. His 63 points (27G-36A) in 48 games ranks him second in the league in scoring and, if he keeps up at his current pace (9G-6A in his last seven games), he’ll find himself in the NHL by season’s end, whether it be with Ottawa or a struggling NHL team that picks him up via trade.

2. Tyler Toffoli – RW, Manchester Monarchs

Toffoli will be a regular NHL player this season after the Olympics have concluded, but that’s not stopping him from tearing it up at the AHL level. Toffoli was recently named the AHL Player of the Week for the period ending on February 16th. Toffoli scored five goals, including two game-winning goals, and two assists for seven points in three games for the league-leading Monarchs last week.

3. John Gibson – G, Norfolk Admirals

Gibson leads the AHL with five shutouts and has had three in his last eight games. He’s off to a good start in February despite a 3-2 record with a 1.56 goals-against average and .944 save percentage to go along with two shutouts.

4. Jason Akeson – RW, Adirondack Phantoms

Akeson has led the Phantoms scoring attack all season and is third in the conference in scoring this season with 47 points (18G-29A) in 50 games. He’s been held off the score sheet in his last two games but had been coming off a nine-game points streak (5G-8A) before the recent dry spell.

5. Ryan Strome – C, Bridgeport Sound Tigers

Strome ranks second among AHL rookies in scoring with 46 points (13G-33A) in 34 games this season. With six points (3G-3A) in his last three games, Strome was surely a runner-up to Toffoli for last week’s Player of the Week honors.

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey